Two and a half stars (R)
I went into the screening of Funny Games knowing next to nothing about the background of the film. Having glanced at a synopsis, I was aware only that it was one of those movies where a family on a trip gets targeted by some sadistic youths. Generally, those types of films turn me off, but this one starred Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, so I was hopeful that it would transcend its premise.
Then the lights went down and for roughly an hour and 45 minutes I was assaulted. For the most part, the violence was not graphic, but the level of suspense, of dread, was excruciating. My reaction wasn’t simply due to the behavior of the teenage villains. It was also due to the structure of the film, which torments the audience with long, stark takes, and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
Later, I found out that Funny Games is a shot-by-shot English language remake by Austrian director Michael Haneke (Cache) of his 1997 German-language movie of the same name. It appears that Haneke is using his violent movie to challenge viewers of violent movies and to examine narrative expectations in film. Or maybe he’s just using gimmicks to make his torture porn acceptable for the highbrow crowd.
The story: A family — George (Roth), Ann (Watts) and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) — travels to their secluded vacation home on Long Island. From the car, they briefly speak with their neighbors Fred and Betty, who are accompanied by two nicely attired, blandly handsome teenage boys. Fred and Betty seem distant.
Shortly after arriving, the boys turn up at their home. First Paul (Michael Pitt), who offers to help George launch his boat. Then Peter (Brady Corbet) knocks on the back door, asking to borrow four eggs. The mind games begin with the eggs. Peter drops them, apologizes profusely and asks to borrow four more. Ann is annoyed by the bother, but more because of the tone of his voice — polite, but with an implied demand.
Long story short, things turn ugly fast and the family soon finds themselves held captive in their own home by these unctuous thugs. The tension is relentless and Haneke presents his nightmare effectively, using daylight and the absence of a score to play against genre norms. I’ll give him points for that, and also for his casting. Tim Roth, Naomi Watts and young Devon Gearhart make a credible family, with Watts getting the lion’s share of the screen time. Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet are especially nasty villains, with their mild, androgynous looks and manners making their behavior even more disturbing.
They taunt the family and the viewers as well, with Paul turning directly to the audience two or three times to ask pointed questions. Haneke takes pleasure in working against audience expectations; at one point, just after one of the captives makes a bold, satisfying move, he rewinds the film so that the young creeps can continue with their sick games.
Haneke is a skilled craftsman and an effective provocateur. Some argue that it is hypocritical for him to use movie violence to condemn movie violence, but I suspect that Haneke isn’t actually condemning movie violence. I think he likes screwing with the expectations and emotions of his captive audience, just like the boys. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to be part of it. I saw Funny Games because it’s my job. Do you really want to subject yourself to what I just described?